Hawaii has been largely successful in preventing snakes from entering the island paradise over the years and avoiding the grave danger they present to tropical birds, colorful plants and the vibrant environment that draws millions of tourists to the state each year.
But the recent capture of escaped pet snakes — illegal in Hawaii — and the infestation of Guam by brown tree snakes, which could easily make it here via cargo ship, have alarmed wildlife and agriculture officials.Without any natural predators, authorities say it wouldn’t take much for snakes to take root and multiply, potentially killing off endangered birds and flowers that make the islands special. Hawaii, home to more endangered species per square mile than anywhere else in the world, could potentially face the same fate as Guam, where brown tree snakes overran the island following World War II and wiped most birds from the skies.
“It has a high potential to be devastating to Hawaii,” said Earl Campbell, assistant field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I would look at Guam as the template for what could happen in a range of tropical Pacific Islands that have no snakes.”
Hawaii is so serious about keeping snakes out that the fine for possessing an illegal animal can reach $200,000 and up to three years in prison. But snake owners are granted amnesty if they willingly turn their pets over.
Residents who unlawfully keep snakes as pets create a giant risk when the reptiles escape or are released into the wild. A 9-foot boa constrictor and 7-foot albino Burmese python were captured this month.
“No pet snake is welcome because all it’s going to take is the next earthquake, tsunami or hurricane to blow open all those enclosures and introduce to the islands all those pets that were being kept in a house,” said Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife on Maui. “It’s really a grievous problem.”
Besides the snake pet threat, environmentalists also fear that snakes could find their way to Hawaii by hitchhiking on cargo ships, undetected by short-staffed agriculture inspectors.
If snakes nested and reproduced, it would quickly be too late to stop them and the Hawaiian islands would be changed forever, said Christy Martin, spokeswoman for the state’s Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species.